■ 22:51 (UTC+08:00), 21 SEP 2017 | CHN SHANGHAI
On 01 August 2008, China did what no other country on Planet Earth did — operate trains at 350 km/h (217 mph). The Rail Minister back then, Liu Zhijun, spearheaded a drive to build HSR en masse, with new lines opening at equally amazing speeds on the Wuhan-Guangzhou, Zhengzhou-Xi’an, and Shanghai-Nanjing/Hangzhou routes, just to mention a few.
On 23 July 2011, the horrendous Wenzhou crash happened, killing 40. The then-head of the mainland Chinese railway authorities, Sheng Guangzu, back then a rather weak leader, had little recourse but to ask the lame-duck prime minister to lower speeds to 300 km/h (186 mph). Sheng retired in late 2016, having almost been forgotten for mentionable achievements on his own initiative — HSR pre-dated Sheng, the 12306.cn website came before him, even the canopies/support pole designs some “attribute” Sheng with were used already in a few stations, quite a few years back. However, it was under Sheng’s administration that work started in earnest on an “all-Chinese” trainset, the CR Revival Express (a train which was also made inherently safer and better at higher speeds — despite the many controversies surrounding Sheng, security was made of paramount importance after Wenzhou).
That very same screamer sped out of Beijing South in the morning hours of 21 September 2017, with yours truly onboard Train G1. Top speed reached 350 km/h (217 mph). Once again, China had the world’s fastest train, in a reviving rail industry now led by China Railway Corporation General Manager Lu Dongfu. I consider Lu a serious doer: Beijing South, a Liu-era invention, became a horrendously messy “mall station” under Sheng, whose apparent lust for money stopped at pretty much nothing — just by how that station was (mis)managed. Lu was in office for not even a few months before the station was refreshed, integrated pre-check and security gates were introduced at the basement (check once, and you can board freely), and the shops were put to the side, returning the “meridian” of the Departures Hall to the general public.
My key focus on nationwide trains in China, and eventual influence on the Chinese railways, pretty much started with the Beijing-Shanghai HSR, with record numbers of media organisations interviewing especially me (but also my wife, then-fiance Tracy). It was also the first time I had discovered Business Class, one of the best seats onboard. Today, the media came back, and I was invited into the “media carriage” where there were plenty of interviews to be held. The tone of the talks, though, centred on one thing: how cool the new train was, and what this means for China and also the wider world. Because now, with this 350 km/h or 217 mph screamer, China had, once again, the world’s fastest train in operation.
The campaign to get it back this fast started around five years ago. In February 2012, I was invited to a special meeting of key strategists, where I was highly critical of Sheng’s “decelerate and downgrade” campaign (even if this meant cheaper fares), and put forward the notion that trains should run faster. This then took on a snowball effect, with this suggestion part of my 100 recommendations to the railways (submitted March 2013) and even with later voices asking if a speed-up was possible including the Chinese president himself. No speed-up was possible under the ultraconservative Sheng (except for one line in northeastern China that had been forced to run at snail-like speeds in winter), but once he was out of the way, Lu sped up trains, first on tropical Hainan Island, then by increasing maximum speeds permissible in actual operations on coastal lines, and finally by unveiling the 350 km/h (217 mph) Revival Express.
The fact that they’re speeding it up about a month ahead of a key political congress in China shows the resurgence in confidence not just the rail industry, but the whole country has, on the world’s largest and most advanced High Speed railway network. (It had to be super-advanced, as we have lines running at -40°C and +40°C within the same country!) You can, of course, tell that they’re taking this line seriously, when they launch Train G1 (which I was onboard) from Platform 1, reserved only for mega-important launches (even the summer train launch of accelerated direct services from the Xiongan New Area was done on the adjacent Platform 2, not Platform 1).
At 350 km/h, we could call at one more station down the line, Ji’nan West, before arriving earlier at Shanghai Hongqiao — not just in comparison to earlier trains, but also according to the new timetable. These trains have a practice of arriving a few minutes ahead of time at stations. After unexpectedly missing my connection earlier this year at Nanjing South, it’s now that I realise that indeed, every second counts on the Chinese railways.
We arrived at Shanghai Hongqiao on the equally important (and more frequently-used) Platform 1, having finally travelled the entire length of the line on the speed it was designed and approved for, leaving and arriving on both Platform 1s on Train G1. What a day! ■ ■ ■